The 25th film in the all-encompassing Marvel Cinematic Universe, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings brings yet another superhero into the fold and with him, a new subgenre to the franchise. Like Disney’s live-action remake of Mulan from last year, this latest entry incorporates martial arts and the fantastical storytelling of wuxia fiction into a mostly satisfying action feature. It’s the MCU’s most inspired standalone entry since Black Panther but includes the most laborious exposition of any of their films since Doctor Strange (and that’s including the one where dozens of characters had to go on a time-travel heist). Despite the heavy amounts of backstory, the movie is as light on its feet as it can be and breezes by with well-placed humor and winsome performances.
When we meet San Francisco-based twenty-something Shang-Chi (Simu Liu), he’s in a bit of a rut. Valeting cars by day under the alias “Shaun” and hitting up karaoke bars by night with his rambunctious cohort Katy (Awkwafina), Shang-Chi’s millennial malaise dissipates suddenly when a bus confrontation forces him to tap into dormant hand-to-hand skills. The goons sent to fight him turn out to be a part of the dangerous Ten Rings organization, headed up by none other than Shang-Chi’s super-powered father Wenwu (Tony Leung). His plan to recover his wife and Shang-Chi’s mother Jiang Li (Fala Chen) from the cryptic land of Ta Lo seems fortuitous at first, until Shang-Chi learns of the violent measures Wenwu and his Ten Rings intend to take in the process.
My main charge against Marvel’s previous big-screen offering Black Widow was that it felt anonymous, as if you could plug any MCU character into the film as its protagonist and not much would be affected. Certainly, the same criticism cannot be applied to Shang-Chi. The most obvious way that the film distinguishes itself from the rest of the pack is with its dazzling fight choreography, particularly in two, Jackie Chan-influenced action setpieces from the first act. The first, in which “Shaun” turns into Shang-Chi before Katy’s eyes while he takes out several oversized foes, somehow gives the jaw-dropping bus brawl from Nobody a run for its money. The second is an extended sequence atop bamboo scaffolding high above Macau, which merges practical effects and CG to brilliant effect.
Reliance on backstory is often an Achilles’ Heel for those Marvel movies which serve as on-screen introductions to a new superhero and sadly, Shang-Chi‘s convoluted setup is its greatest weakness. The film opens with a gorgeous flashback, featuring a sort of “combat ballet” with echoes of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, but by the third act, the cutaways to the past become tedious. Director and co-writer Destin Daniel Cretton chooses to scatter his exposition throughout the narrative but does so with little regard for the overall flow of the film. The climactic battle is also overstuffed with magical creatures introduced late in the game, who ultimately take up too much screen time and distract from the (admittedly foolish) plan that the villain aims to carry out.
Despite the awkwardly placed bits of storytelling, the film remains engaging throughout mainly due to the liveliness of the performances. As the titular warrior, newcomer Simu Liu brings an earnest charm to his role that plays nicely against his fierce fighting abilities. Awkwafina has been on the rise over the past few years and she turns in another effortlessly funny sidekick performance while also not being relegated to a love interest for the lead. The menacing work from the great Wong Kar-wai collaborator Tony Leung will elate those still bitter about the Mandarin fake-out from 2013’s Iron Man 3. With some tighter direction, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings could have been one of the better chapters in the MCU canon but even as is, it’s another reliable entertainment from the most prolific assembly line in the business.
Score – 3/5
More new movies coming this weekend:
Debuting on Amazon Prime is Cinderella, a romantic comedy starring Camila Cabello and Idina Menzel reworking the classic fairy tale into a modern-day musical.
Streaming on Netflix is Worth, a legal drama starring Michael Keaton and Stanley Tucci about a headstrong Washington D.C. attorney who battles against bureaucracy and politics to help victims of 9/11.
Available to rent on demand is The Gateway, a crime thriller starring Frank Grillo and Olivia Munn about a social worker who intervenes when an inmate returns to his family and tries to lure them into a life of crime.
Reprinted by permission of Whatzup